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Most IT Project Failures Are NOT Due To Technical Problems

One of the points I stress through the entire sixteen weeks of my MBA IT classes is that most IT project failures – and by some estimates over 60% of all significant IT/IS installations are “challenged”– is that the majority of the problems encountered are people problems, not technical problems. Despite the increasing technical sophistication of MBA students in general, this fact is still surprising to many. In the vast majority of cases of full or partial information system failure, the hardware and software work exactly as specified, and the failure can be traced back to one or more common management misunderstandings, which lead to failures in change management for the systems project.

Arguably the most common misunderstanding is the underestimation of the complexity – in organizational terms – of non-trivial information systems implementations. All non-trivial IS implementations change business processes. This is another point I stress and on reflection it is easy to see that it can be no other way. Even the most sophisticated software is fixed in terms of the information it requires to function. Gathering this information at the level of detail and in the sequence required is a process, sometimes a very fundamental one, and often a process that is new to the organization if not actually counter to existing processes. When management underestimates the amount of change required by the system implementation they do not adequately prepare operations personnel.  The result is resistance to the new system and in some cases passive aggression toward the system that is tantamount to sabotage.

Some systems never even survive to full installation due to underestimation of the complexity and corresponding effort of implementation. A very common problem results from expecting operations personnel to handle data/information transfer to the new system while continuing to perform the full range of duties of their current job. In a surprising number of instances management does not even offer overtime or other extra compensation.  What is unsurprising is the inevitable resentment and confusion among operations personnel that frequently causes installations to drag far behind schedule, negatively effects normal business functions and can result in significant employee turnover.  Another factor that frequently accompanies underestimation of the IS project is inadequate training in the new system. Occasionally the need for both training and backfill (backfill is the hiring of temporary employees to assist in the installation of a new system) is recognized by management but is not pursued due to cost considerations.  This has been shown in many unequivocal studies to be false economy. The cost of training, backfill and other implementation support, such as consulting, should be acknowledged by management and factored into the overall cost/benefit calculation for the system.

The mindset that results in underestimation of IS complexity is sometimes termed ‘an appliance mentality,’ that is, the system is regarded as a refrigerator or washing machine might be. You plug it in and it works, right? Alas, no, however studies have shown that this attitude increases as the management hierarchy is ascended.  C-level executives, without whose support no project can be expected to succeed, exhibit surprising ignorance of technology, even today.

Another entire set of problems, even more intractable than system complexity underestimation problems, arise as a result of non-technical management giving or surrendering control of information systems projects entirely to technical personnel.  If control is relinquished to solely technical personnel early in the project, the problem is frequently a technically correct system that solves the wrong problem. One technique for correcting this set of issues is dual managers, one from IS/IT and another from the business side of the house. While common in Europe, this management style has yet to gain widespread acceptance in the US.

Invariably in my classes many hands go up when I ask who has seen a ‘challenged IT installation’ at their workplace. The resulting discussion is a valued part of the learning process for most MBA’s. Anyone care to comment on experiences you’ve had with regard to ‘challenged’ systems? (Names can be changed to protect the innocent 😉

William L. Kuechler, Jr., Ph.D.

William L. Kuechler, Jr., Ph.D.William Kuechler is professor of information systems and chair of the information systems discipline at the University of Nevada, Reno. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Drexel University, and a Ph.D. in computer information systems from Georgia State University.